By Tim Daiss
Amid the geopolitical quagmire among Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. over a number of issues ranging from Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, its ballistic missile program and its regional hegemony overtures which have Riyadh scrambling for a response, China is joining the fray.
Yesterday, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the speaker of Iran’s parliament that China’s desire to develop close ties with Iran will remain unchanged, regardless of the international situation. Xi’s remarks came just one day before the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)to China to drum up support since several western powers have taken a harder line against the young prince over his alleged involvement in the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Xi met Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani on Wednesday and added that the two countries had a long friendship and shared a long-tested mutual trust. “No matter how the international and regional situation changes, China’s resolve to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran will remain unchanged,” Xi was quoted a saying in comments published the next day by China’s Foreign Ministry. China and Iran should further deepen strategic mutual trust and continue to support each other on core interests and major concerns, Xi added.
China’s geopolitical advantage
Beijing is able to court both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the same, something the U.S. is unable to do since American foreign policy is often dictated by human rights concerns. China, however, prides itself on not taking sides in domestic politics of other nations, even if those nations have a dismal human rights history. A recent example of this is China’s support of Sudan. According to Amnesty International, systematic human rights abuses have occurred in Sudan, including killing, torture, rape, looting and destroying of property by all parties involved in the conflict, but primarily by the Sudanese government and government-backed Janjawid militia. More than a decade ago, western oil companies pulled out of Sudan under pressure from human rights organizations, but China remained, continuing to support the government as well as building the country’s oil infrastructure. A Bookings Institute report at the time said that “Chinese companies have turned a blind eye to the brutal way in which Sudan forced 200,000 to 300,000 of its citizens from oil-rich lands without compensation. Nor have these companies shown concern that Sudan uses oil revenue to purchase arms for its wars against its black African population.”
Now, however, the higher moral ground that the U.S. has taken as part of its foreign policy (which peaked under President Obama) has taken a hit due to the decades-long alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The killing of Khashoggi in October, likely at the hands of Saudi operatives and also likely under the direction or at least acknowledgment of MbS, complicates the situation. While members in both the House and Senate, both Demarcates and Republicans, have called for tougher sanctions against Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s killing, President Trump has resisted. For Trump it’s a no-win situation, the President needs Saudi assurances to help keep a lid on global oil prices, particularly as the 20202 presidential election nears. However, resisting calls from both sides of the aisle in Congress to take a tougher stance against Saudi Arabia has also damaged the president’s standing even more among human rights advocates and even those within his own party who largely support the president on other issues, including South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.
Going forward, China will continue to play a delicate balancing act by befriending both Iran and Saudi Arabia to help keep oil imports from both producers secure, though Iran’s oil exports are already impacted by fresh US sanctions, but also to use a aambit against Washington. As U.S. resolve in the middle east wanes under first Obama’s and now Trump’s watch, Xi Jinping will be more than happy to position China as a new power broker in middle eastern affairs – albeit without the human rights attachment that Washington has to adhere to.
For Saudi Arabia, it will find a willing partner in China that will not only remain silent over human rights abuses but will criticize other nations for meddling, all the while enhancing its own geopolitical and energy security.